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Why it's not always love at first sight

Children learning to read must recognise words 'on the run'. Richard Brown on how to help them. The development of a sight vocabulary is of great importance to children in their first four or five terms at school. But what is it? A child's sight vocabulary is made up of words which can be read, said, and understood "on the run", within a meaningful and continuous text and without hesitation. Its development is essential for early fluency.

For convenience, sight words can be classified into four groups. There are personal words, such as the names of family members, home address, the teacher's name. There are environmental words which have become familiar, such as shop signs and classroom labels. There are picture making words, which suggest corresponding images, like crocodile, house and jump. The fourth group consists of abstract, high-utility words which have little meaning outside sentences, such as and, was, there, went, what. Children find words in this latter group difficult to process because they do not suggest images. Such words usually appear in sight vocabulary word lists or "key word lists" and are some-times known as "functional" or "little" words. They make up a high proportion of the words children need to be able to read on sight.

Teachers well understand the need to help children develop a growing sight vocabulary as quickly as possible. What is less well understood is how best to teach it.

Two fundamentally different approaches have developed over the years.

The principle behind what I shall call the reductionist approach is a behavioural one: repeat a word often enough and the child will eventually remember it. Repetition may be a sound principle, but many of the texts and the teaching strategies that have flowed from it have attracted much criticism from teachers who value good quality books for beginner readers.

In order to achieve high repetition of a few "simple" words, authors are forced to distort language to the point where it becomes almost meaningless (example left).

In these sorts of books, language is very far from children's natural speech patterns and it is drained of its meaning. Paradoxically, it often demands a degree of inference which is beyond most beginner readers.

Such books, found in many reading schemes, are frequently accompanied by activities which compound the problem. Flash cards and "words in tins" are intended to reinforce knowledge of sight words, but by dealing with words out of context, meaning and decoding are separated.

Why are such texts and practices still widely used? Teachers who use them seem to believe that the child should operate as an independent reader from the begin-ning: that he or she should, in the main, be reading aloud to the teacher with minimal support.

Treating children as if they are independent readers from the beginning simplifies classroom management, since you only have to "hear readers" and teach phonics, rather than conduct shared and group reading, which may be more difficult to organise.

Thankfully, most children have access to other books and will learn to read anyway; but others will be forced to struggle, and quite a few may become bored or even give up.

There are two main principles underlying the contextual approach - that sight words are best learnt within an interesting and meaningful context, and that lan-guage structures that make texts predictable are the ones which best support children's acquisition of a growing sight vocabulary. These language structures include sensitive use of rhyme, rhythm, repetition and natural language. So, instead of "Look, John, look at me...," children can have: (below) These are all from Cambridge Reading's "Beginning to Read" phase and are texts for sharing, hearing, joining in, chanting, reciting; the text's words echo in the child's head. The child does not attempt to read them on his or her own until they have been shared in these ways. In this sort of language-supported context, the concept of "simple" or "hard" words becomes suspect. Picture-making words such as jungle, picnic, grassy, noisy or boat can be cued from the pictures; the abstract, high utility words are in the child's head and can be predicted from the text's syntax or by using early phonic knowledge which will be developing alongside a sight vocabulary.

Teachers who prefer lively, interesting, well-written books from the beginning choose them to motivate the child and to provide texts which can stand being shared and revisited, many times. They believe that a child in their first few terms at school will need a lot of support to make sense of print. This takes several forms: whole-class sessions using Big Books; establishing favourite books in frequent read aloud sessions; small groups using sets of books; and in more intimate one-to-one or one-to-two sessions, with home support as a valuable back-up. Good support material, too, which requires that children pay careful attention to print, can be an important element of these shared situations. As children develop a greater sight vocabulary and more confidence, shared reading progresses to guided reading, where children learn problem-solving and self-monitoring strategies, leading them eventually into independent reading.

Children are not "on their own" from the beginning, they learn to become independent with active support from the teacher. This is the crucial difference between the two approaches.

The First Fifty Words: Sight Vocabulary Workbooks 1-5 are published by Cambridge University Press.

Richard Brown is an educational and children's author and joint general editor of Cambridge Reading


The contextual approach does not rely simply on patterned language in good texts and shared reading to teach a sight vocabulary. It includes additional teaching strategies to help children pay closer visual attention to print and to develop one-to-one correspondence.

* Linking reading and writing is the clearest route to suc-cess here. The Cambridge Reading scheme, for instance, has developed a systematic approach to the development of a sight vocabulary - concentrating on 50 of the most common abstract, high-utility words - which closely links reading and writing. The teacher highlights a word in context, and then the child says it, traces through it and over it, copies it, rings it in two more familiar sentences, then writes it in cloze sen-tences and in a sentence of their own.

* Within the emergent writing context, teachers encourage children to write high-utility sight words from memory. If the spelling of a word is not known to the child, prompts such as word lists are usually available to refer to before the child writes tile word from memory, using the 'look-cover-write-check' strategy.

* For children needing reinforcement, card and board games, in which sight words are identified and preferably placed within a sentence (perhaps taken from known texts) are useful. Games such as snap and Lotto are also useful for children who need practice and confidence-building.

* In the teaching of phonics, sight words are taught as part of analogy: the word "and" will be taught in the phonic group band, h-and, s-and, and. But analogy is of little use in teaching many other sight words which cannot so easily be grouped phonically, such as because, theretheir, said, and these will be taught in other ways.

The development of a sight vocabulary is not just about being able to read common words on sight. The way it is taught raises fundamental issues to do with text quality, models of learning and classroom management. As such it goes right to the heart of how children learn to read in their first few terms at school.

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